By Helen Kim, D.Min.

Often in discipleship and spiritual formation we focus on content and content delivery. Content is vital to growth – solid content and teaching helps us gain knowledge that informs and often deepens our faith journey. Content delivery is also significant – many of us have experienced the power of a great communicator who helps us see and understand information in digestible ways.

In addition to content and the delivery of it, I am increasingly convinced that conversations are vital formation spaces where we digest theology and learn to become more full participants in our lives and the world. Conversations are part of God’s design for daily human interaction and serve as a primary means for connecting and communicating. Dialogue engages people and helps formulate understanding and discovery in ways that one-way, monologue delivery of preaching and teaching does not. This is not to discount the power of great preaching and lecture-style teaching. Each has its place yet I believe many would benefit from exploring and deepening conversation skills.

Not all conversations are the same. Conversations with or initiated by Christians take place in many settings: the coffee hour after service, in church classes and small groups, in homes and workplaces, the laundromat and in drive-throughs and yet conversations some seem to actually raise barriers against spiritual growth or fill space without making impact. Others, however, unearth discovery, “Aha!” moments, bring healing and feed the soul. Some conversations leave you feeling empty while others fill and satisfy. Learning to converse well is a skill that requires intentional effort for anyone seeking to grow deeper in following Jesus and leading others to do likewise. This is even truer in a generation where time has become a tightly guarded commodity and conversation seems to increasingly lean towards what is impersonal and “safe.”

This series of posts will cover key elements of growing in the art of conversation as part of spiritual formation. To begin, in this post, we will look at small talk.

  • Is there such a thing as small talk?
  • How can small talk grow into something bigger and go in directions deeper?
Is there such a thing as small talk?

Off and on I hear the following comment from my friends and coworkers: “I can’t stand small talk.” The small talk they refer to is the initial chitchat that happens repeatedly between people when they first meet to fill the airspace between them, to make things less awkward than complete silence. The talk may cover the weather, asking “How are you?” with a cursory answer in reply, and is essentially called small talk because it’s not “deep” or “meaningful” or “interesting.”

Engaging in and facilitating impactful conversations is my passion and at times I am asked how I am able to engage in “small talk” or how small talk can be turned into something deeper. People marvel that I can genuinely be engaged in talking about the weather. We term such conversation “small” talk because it is considered lite conversation about uncontroversial or unimportant matters, elevator music to fill a pause of space. But is talk only meaningful if it touches on controversial or heavier topics? Small talk labels certain conversation as of less quality than others.

But is such conversation really small? In Scripture, a repeated theme is that God is able to take what is small, whether a person with little experience or stature, or a boy’s lunch, and use it for His purposes. The people and situations that would be easy to dismiss become the very birthplaces of God at work. “Despise not the small things” (Zechariah 4:10).

Over many moments of small talk conversations, I have come to realize that:

  • Small talk requires the act of one human being making an effort to engage another – an act of grace and humanity.
  • Small talk provides an offbeat, low pressure entryway to deeper discovery.
  • Sometimes, small talk can actually be a testing of the waters – like a water droplet tossed to discover whether there is a pool of receptivity in another, or a feeler to sense the environment.
  • Small talk can be the unexpected beginning of an off-road adventure that leads to discovering more about a person’s family, the activities a person enjoys, the theological beliefs they have, life experiences they’ve had – whether it’s a glimpse of a stranger or another facet of a co-worker one sees almost every day.

Ultimately being seen and known is part and parcel of discipleship, which cannot be separated from the call of Christ to know His love and to love well. Our willingness to hear and respond to a comment on the weather can give another person a momentary, but valuable glimpse, of someone wanting to know them.

Sometimes there’s time and space for small talk to lead into deeper conversation. Based on our response and sensitivity, what was “small” talk can open up a powerful moment of being seen and heard.

How can small talk grow into something deeper? 

First, our perception and response to small talk is important. If we are quick to label remarks as small talk that will go nowhere, we may miss opportunities for deeper connection. Human beings are deep unknowable wells – we can never really have a fellow human figured out. On top of that, God can move in the most surprising and delightful ways, often when we least expect it. As we learn with spiritual maturity, the best approach to life is to come into each encounter and day with openness – knowing that we cannot have it all figured out, but as we rest in God in all things, we find that nothing is every ordinary or small.

Second, being open to conversation with another whether it begins in small talk or dives into something deeper, requires love – a  desire and willingness to be curious about another. Such desire and curiosity comes out of our own experience of God’s love for us and a growing awareness of the wonder of each human being. “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal.” as C.S. Lewis puts it

Third, remember that God is in all things. A conversation is not more meaningful and important if it touches on theology or religion. It is meaningful if there is a genuine desire to know the other and discovery of the other.

In addition to these perspectives, there are practical ways that can move small talk towards greater discovery. Here are some practical tips:

  • Eye Contact. Look at the person you are talking to. Our default may be to pick up our awkwardness, or inner desire to run off and tackle our to-do list. But in the exchange, just take a moment to see the person. Nothing communicates a lack of interest than listening with the ears while our eyes wander to our phone. How do the other person look as they are talking? Stressed? Extra relaxed? At peace? Joyful? When we take time to see the person we hear them both with our ears and eyes.
  • Articulate what you notice. Sometimes taking the time to take in a person with our eyes as well as our eyes helps us notice something and we can respond with a question that shows we see more than simply responding to what was said. “You look really rested” or “Is everything okay?” – can open a whole new conversation because you showed that your genuine interest in the other person through your observation.
  • Read the body language and ask a next-level question. If someone comments on the weather, though that’s a surface comment, it does indicate a willingness to connect. If they’re not necessarily running off to get to something else, ask something that will be a friendly response and help you get to know the person a little more. Some follow up questions could be “Yes, the weather looks like it’ll be great all weekend. Do you have any special plans?” Or, “Such a bad commute! I’m glad I have my Kindle with me. How do you usually get through it?”
  • Share a next-level answer when you’re asked a question. I have been asked “how was your weekend?” more times than I can count on all the Mondays I come back to the workplace. Instead of just saying “good” – as I often am tempted to say, as the weekend often feels like it happened a week ago – on my good days, I try to give a more substantive answer. Time and time again, I’m amazed that when I am willing to be more open and share truthfully what I did, or that I was a bit disappointed during the weekend along with what was good, that a deeper response comes back and the person speaking to me shares something of themself.
  • Conversation, like any other skill, requires practice. Learning to ask open-ended questions that draw others out, to identify another person’s willingness to talk further, to not respond with our default “good” and run to pursue our to-do list – conversing well is a skill. In addition to developing conversational facets of listening, asking questions and sharing helpful content, practice is needed to learn to do all three while being present with God in the moment.

Small talk isn’t very small and it can be far from “meaningless” or a “waste of time.”

“How are you?” “It’s so nice outside today.” “What a commute!” Whether such small talk provides a bridge to a deeper exchange or not, it is a gift – like a smile in passing. And just like a smile or a friendly wave in passing, our small talk can be an act of humanizing grace and love.